For Body And Spirit
When Will Isenberg returned from his summer trip to Kenya, he came back in the best shape of his life. But the multiple runs and high altitude training wasn't what Isenberg gained the most from the trip.
The thing that stood out on his trip to Kenya — more than the altitude training that burglarized his lungs on runs, more than the poverty that surrounded him everywhere — was the value of friendship. Isenberg said the experience changed him forever, as an athlete and a person.
Men would approach him on the road, hold his hand and ask how he was doing and where he came from. They called him Mzungu. Most directly it means a person of foreign descent. Isenberg translated it to mean "white guy." A junior on St. Anthony's cross country team, Isenberg made one special friendship in Nephat Maritim.
Isenberg went to Kenya as part of the STRIVE Service Trips for Student Athletes, a summer program that sends student-athletes to Kenya and Peru for three weeks, to participate in community service projects, learn a new culture all while continuing with their summer training. STRIVE brings two groups to Iten, Kenya, and another to Sacred Valley, Peru.
Maritim was a substitute counselor when Isenberg's group took a safari through Masai Mara. Maritim is a student in KENSAP (The Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project), which helps promising students from underprivileged regions of Kenya gain admission into U.S. colleges and works closely with STRIVE while they are in Kenya. Maritim hopes to compete at Harvard next month.
"We went to this shop and the exchange for money was so low that we were in there throwing money around," Isenberg said. "We were buying everything for our families. Souvenirs, just everything, and all this kid has ever wanted was a bracelet that had the Kenyan flag on it, which I bought like 20 of, and a belt that had Kenya on it."
But Maritim had always wanted a Kenyan speed suit. The kind sprinters would wear in the Olympics. Isenberg had bought one two days earlier.
"So I say, come to our hut tonight," Isenberg said. "You're literally going to bug out."
When Maritim, who visited that night, Isenberg met him wearing his own black, white, red and green Kenyan speed suit. Then he threw Maritim the extra one. They've been friends ever since.
"No," Maritim said.
"No, take it. It's yours. Put it on," Isenberg recalled. "There's pictures of him on Facebook with a caption that says, 'Who says Kenyans don't have speed?' The guy is hysterical."
Isenberg may have returned to the States feeling changed forever but the impact that he left with STRIVE can last just as long. Katherine Trotzuk, who founded the program three years ago, touted STRIVE as community service project more than a summer running camp in Kenya.
"A lot of people come into it thinking, 'Hey I'm running in Kenya,' but when they leave they come away talking about the community service component just as much as the running," Trotzuk said. "The things that our kids have been able to do in Kenya for the school and the KENSAP program are truly extraordinary and something they can take significant pride in when they leave the country."
The groups in Kenya stayed at Lornah Kipligat's High Altitude Training Center for three weeks, running at more than 8,000 feet above sea level. Each participant is responsible for fundraising even before leaving for the trip. The two groups that went to Kenya, 25 student-athletes, were able to donate about $18,000.
Isenberg and his father set up a website, promoted it on Facebook and raised about $4,000. Isenberg said in the first 24 hours the site launched, he had $3,000 in donations. The group's fundraising made it possible to build a classroom at Camariny Primary School and finance books for a library. But the STRIVE participants also physically helped build the classroom as part of their community service.
"All of this is pretty basic stuff," Trotzuk said. "But there's a tremendous need."
Trotzuk first organized a trip to Kenya when her oldest son, Dylan, decided he wanted to make a trip with a group of friends. She soon realized that other student-athletes could benefit from the same experience and make a different in the world at the same time. Trotzuk admits that the program is a labor of love, and what profit she does make goes back into building the program as she continues trying to expand.
Her son Liam, who attends Collegiate, made the trip this year with Isenberg's group. Eddie Owens of Packer Collegiate, the Gatorade New York Cross Country Runner of the Year, went to Kenya last summer, as did Cole Townsend of Canisius. They both enjoyed their best cross country seasons last fall.
Isenberg is hoping to do the same with the Friars this season. He said the trip brought a renewed rigor to his training and perspective on both life and athletics.
"They actually made us these little bracelets," Isenberg said of the students at Camariny Primary. "It's just the smallest things like that that really put things in perspective. Like, wow, that's kind of amazing. I went there, just talking to my friends and family about fundraising for these kids. We fundraised this much money. We made a school. We supplied them with books and they love it. They respect us to the utmost. They have us these bracelets, but it's like he most cherished thing I own right now. It's the little things."